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The world famous South African artist William Kentridge was a very special guest on May 27 at MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Art located in Rome’s elegant Flaminio district. In an interview by Carlos Basualdo, curator at Large Maxxi Arte, the filmmaker and theatrical director, who is also a skilled draughtsman, spoke about his problematic view of art and, above all, life and its dependency. This was revealed to be not so far from the Ancient Greek philosophy of “panta rei”: Everything flows.
Born in Johannesburg, Kentridge gained a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and African Studies in 1976. Afterwards, he received a diploma in Fine Arts from the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and, at the beginning of the 1980s, decided to study mime and theatre at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
He evidently took a 360 degrees training which highly affected his broad, original and sometimes strongly politically-oriented artistic production – ranging from drawing, to sculpturing, performance art, film, television, and so on. He is probably one of the South African artist who can boast the most about his major exhibitions at, most notably, the museums of modern art of San Francisco and New York, and whose six great works are displayed at the Italian MAXXI.
However, he is more widely known as a unique film animator. In fact, his distinctive technique, which consists of filming the same collages or charcoal drawings over and over again, is world renowned because it goes against the traditional rules of cell-shaded animation. He is famous for meticulously making small changes from time to time in his filming, allowing an evolution of the drawings and preserving traces of their past.
But it is not just about the simple mastery of an experimental artist, skillful at altering his drawings creating optical illusions. Kentridge has always had a deep awareness of the historical and philosophical scope of his actions as well: “In the same way that there is a human act of dismembering the past there is a natural process in the terrain through erosion, growth, dilapidation that also seeks to blot out events.
In South Africa this process has other dimensions. The very term ‘new South Africa’ has within it the idea of a painting over the old, the natural process of dismembering, the naturalization of things new,” he argued in an introductory note to Felix in Exile, one of his famous film.
Likewise, art itself might be thought of as an infinite and varying migration never reaching any destination and basically determined by body and change: “the work has to be created with the rhythm of the body”, the creator stated at the event at MAXXI. The objects are unstable, achieving statuses which are always going to change: even meters and kilometers “are not so reliable as they seem.”
His work deals with an artistic and existential metaphor, shown at the Italian contemporary museum through some witty animated movies. One of them was about three bicycle wheels concurrently spun by three Kentridges using utensils. The Dada experiment provokingly demonstrated how wheels, out of their common usage, produce movement as well as time while their spokes was being turned.
They might become rhythm itself. Moreover, “these films are about what it is even inside the drawing: drawing is primarily a physical activity, it is about a movement of the body,” where the pencil is “a piece of chunk at the end of your hand” through which you give your rhythm depending on “the energy that comes (…) through the body,” Kentridge added. Thus, the drawing appears to be a sort of theatrical exercise due to different degrees of tension produced by the body, “which correspond, in theatrical terms, in different kinds of performance.”
Questioned by Basualdo what the movement of the wheels had to do with his drawings as far as endlessness was concerned, William Kentridge appeared without any doubt. Art is about transience: “there is a kind of promiscuous migration of images from one form to another, something that starts as a drawing coming to a film, the film coming to a piece of theatre, and the spinning wheels coming to an idea for theatre performance.”
Furthermore, according to the artist, the film itself is very much about “provisionality, the work not being fixed. It is not a photograph, it’s a photograph 25 times a second.”
Overall, like bicycle spokes or evenly maneuvered hands of a clock, man is only a fragile player repeating always the same drama over a unique piece of paper.
Just like the famous Kafka’s parable called My destination which the South African creator called attention to at the end of his event. In fact, essentially man is just “a talking clock,” he concluded.